An Interview with Peter Buffett
In this week’s issue Maya Prabhu, who is managing director of the Coutts Institute, Coutts & Co. in London and also runs the Coutts Forums for Philanthropy, interviews Peter Buffett about his unique upbringing, his thoughts about joining the family business, his approach to philanthropy, and his advice to families of wealth. Peter, an Emmy Award winning musician, composer, philanthropist and author, will present the opening keynote, “Life is What You Make It: A Concert & Conversation” at the 2014 FFI global conference in Washington, DC. He is the son of Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.
Maya Prabhu: I’ll start with a question that I’m sure you’ve been asked many times, but I can’t hold myself back from asking you and I’m sure the readers will want to know. What was it like, really, growing up with such a famous and successful Dad?
Peter Buffett: Well, you’re right. I get that question a lot and I think I get it because well, for the obvious reasons, people are curious, certainly. But also because I’ve late in my life made a second career of pushing normalcy amongst wealthy people. In retrospect, I was incredibly fortunate that I didn’t know what my father did. He wasn’t doing it to display his wealth…he wasn’t doing it to show the world he was worthy or that he was somebody. He was doing it because he was really good at it and he just loved it. He was so good at it, of course, but the money didn’t matter. The money was a great score card, internally for him, that he could look at it and say: “Wow, I really am good at what I do.” But he didn’t have to prove that to the world, and that is the fundamental point. He lives in the house that I grew up in. I can go home and sleep in my bedroom—it’s a little different now, but it’s basically the same room. He drove the same car forever, and he still drives himself to the same office that he did when I was five years old. We went to public school, my grandparents lived down the street, and we just lived in a house in the neighborhood. So it was an extraordinary gift to be shown that ultimately money wasn’t the point. It was to provide a loving, safe household.
MP: That’s very striking—the example that your parents set. Their life wasn’t anything extraordinary or extravagant.
PB: Not only did they set an example for us, obviously, but again in retrospect, they set an example for anyone amassing great wealth.
MP: We talk about the importance of values in families of wealth. Is there anything that you recall in terms of your family conversations that really formed your own values? A voice in your head that says, “My mother or my father always used to say that”?
PB: We weren’t told many things, but we were shown a lot. And because we grew up in the civil rights era it was especially important for my parents, who were both equally passionate about civil rights—equal rights for everyone—and all those kind of things. We saw them behave in ways that showed us what being a human is really all about and, frankly, what philanthropy is all about.
Because philanthropy really just means the love of people, right? And I saw my parents both love everybody and accept everybody. It was not necessarily common, even in Omaha in the early 60’s. So I would say that while I can’t think off the top of my head something they always said, I can absolutely say that they always behaved with a sense of dignity for everyone. It soaked in.
MP: Did you ever consider or have any conversations around joining your Dad’s business, or were you always encouraged to chart your own course?
PB: Well, both are true. It was definitely very clear…with my Dad, about charting one’s own course. He was, as was my mother, very clear that, if we were fortunate enough to find something we loved, we should do it. So that was made clear early on. But then I went off to Stanford and took everything that ended in 101 or “-ology.” I loved learning. I loved school, but I just couldn’t find the thing that really clicked. And there was a point, about a year and a half in, when I did talk to my Dad about going into the business, about looking at Berkshire and seeing if there was a place for me, and seeing if there was something that really clicked for me. I didn’t want to overlook it. I mean, I’m the youngest of three, and the other two at that point certainly had not made the choice to go into Berkshire, and I thought it would be kind of crazy to not at least examine it. So, he sent me a bunch of annual reports and various things and we talked a few times and it just wasn’t happening. It just wasn’t something that I got excited about. He was fine with that. It was clear that I should only do it if I really, really loved it, and I didn’t, so off I went into music.
MP: Music is clearly very important to you as is your philanthropy, which you are engaged in with your wife. Would you talk a little bit about that and what it means to both of you?
PB: It starts, again, with how I was raised, in the civil rights era with two parents who were maybe on the surface very different. My Dad’s very in his head and into books and reading annual reports. My mother is very much in her heart and out in the world and doing things in the community. But they really shared a deep common bond and passion around the rights and dignity of all people. I felt that palpably as a child. I could see that this was really their core. And then I went off into music. I had done music my whole life, and so again after I looked at everything else I realized it was right in front of me all along. As I got into it after about a decade or so I got involved with the American Indian story through my work in Dances With Wolves and other projects. I got deeper and deeper into the American Indian story and that touched the same nerve that I was very familiar with as a child. I realized the oppression and the disregard for human dignity and life in that context. I was always so aware of how many people didn’t have a voice. So when the philanthropy came, it was pretty obvious to us that we wanted to not so much be a “voice for the voiceless,” but in fact, to make sure that the voiceless had a voice. And that those voices were able to be raised up. So that’s why, of course, we focused on girls and women first, because worldwide, there’s no question that they are the largest population that loses its voice and power.
MP: Yes, and seeing your work with the Nike Foundation has really raised the profile and brought a lot of awareness to this issue…It’s been very powerful.
PB: Thank you.
MP: And very rewarding, I’m sure, to see that.
PB: Absolutely. It’s been a lot of fun to make that alliance—which is not a normal alliance—between a private foundation and a corporate foundation. But it was also equally rewarding to see the philanthropic world at large begin to come to so many of the conclusions that we were forming early on. Of course Nike knows how to spread the word about things, and we knew that and I always felt that if they could do for girls what they’ve done for shoes in terms of awareness, we’d be in pretty good shape.
MP: Many families get involved in philanthropy together as a way to cement their values and talk about things that are important to them. I’m just curious if you’re able to say whether that’s something you considered between parents and your siblings, or if you wanted to do things quite independently.
PB: Well, I think my parents were brilliant in many ways, and one of them was how they set up the philanthropic work that the three of us do. Because while it’s true that often the urge—and it’s a good one—is to bring the kid’s together around philanthropy, I think potentially this sets up a dynamic that isn’t the healthiest or best for the philanthropy. By saying, “Here, kids, you have to all work together.” implicitly you’re saying, “get along.” And so what my parents did was enable us to explore our own unique takes on philanthropy. Why force us into a room when we may wind up in a room naturally? This is in fact what has happened. My sister and I have a shared interest in childhood development and school climate. My brother and I have been overlapping on issues of girls, women, and agriculture. For us, it’s about empowerment, and we find ourselves either bumping into each other in a wonderful way or saying, “Hey I was just in this country and learned this,” and my brother will say, “Wow, that’s the only country in the world I’ve never been to.”
PB: Philanthropy is about passion, and that’s the tricky part. You get people with passion in a room where they have to share resources, whether it’s on a personal scale or a national scale, and you start to have problems or the potential to have problems.
MP: Is there one bit of advice you would give to the next generation, and one bit of advice you would give to the parent’s generation on how families of wealth can get this right?
PB: It ultimately gets down to deep and fundamental psychology, because money is such a potentially corrupting force. What matters is the kind of the intention in why you made it, and the character of the person who has it. And again, we all have our stories and they are always complex in some way or another in terms of self-worth and expectations. If you are a solid human being, then the money is just energy, essentially—it’s just a vehicle to do something with. If you’re holding onto a lot of money, then there’s some fear in you that you either don’t trust yourself, or you’re not enough unless you have it. The advice I’d give to any generation is: know yourself, be comfortable with yourself. Because from that, all things flow. This can be very difficult, especially if you’ve grown up with wealth, because wealth distorts so many things. And again that’s the greatest fortune for me—funny I would use the word “fortune” —that I grew up not knowing that there was money around, so I didn’t have that distortion with my friends or with people I didn’t know. In the past 10 years, however, having the foundation and a father known worldwide, I see just how potentially distorting money can be. So again, it’s fundamentally about being comfortable in your own skin and knowing that the money isn’t the thing that either got you somewhere or will take you somewhere.
MP: Thank you. We all look forward to meeting you in Washington and to hearing you on the big stage.
PB: Wonderful. Thank you.
About the Contributors:
Peter Buffett is an Emmy Award-winning musician whose acclaimed career spans more than 30 years as a professional musician, composer, philanthropist and author. Buffett’s book, Life is What You Make It, is a personal, revealing, and intuitive story about following passions over conventions, transcending your circumstances or status, taking up the reins of your destiny and living life to its fullest. It has been translated into over 15 languages and has sold nearly half a million copies worldwide.
Maya Prabhu is managing director of the Coutts Institute, Coutts & Co. in London and has been involved in developing numerous reports and pieces of thought leadership, such as the Coutts Handbook for Philanthropy and Inspiring Local Philanthropy. She holds the FFI Global Education Network (GEN) Certificate in Family Business Advising (CFBA) and teaches GEN 504: Philanthropy – More than Money.